THERE is more information out there than ever before but, with each year that passes, sometimes it seems we know less and less about ourselves. Through news reports, easier online access to academic studies, books, images, statistics and graphs, reality – fake news permitting – has never been more in our face. Perhaps that’s why we have trouble seeing it, or at least in getting it into perspective.

In Scotland, the doors of perception have been thrown open by an Ipsos MORI study that reveals a large gap between people’s perceptions of social phenomena and the apparently elusive situation known as reality. Take teenage births (admittedly not everyone’s specialist subject): we think eight times as many women and girls aged 15-19 give birth as actually do.

On mental health, perhaps it is because it is the subject of so many publicised studies, or perhaps because many of us know of someone with problems, but we think more than double the number of people suffer from depression as actually do. Obesity, meanwhile, as we reported last month, is often in the eye of the beholder, with only 29 per cent of participants in an NHS Health Scotland survey being able to identify an obese body shape.

Now this apparent failure to see what is in front of our eyes, or at least to work with accepted definitions, is backed up by the Ipsos MORI study, which found that we significantly underestimate weight problems and obesity: we think such conditions affect 46 people out of every 100 when the actual figure is 65. Perhaps this is an area where many of us don’t like holding a mirror up to society.

Meanwhile, as the Scottish Budget starts to make its way through Parliament, it is instructive to note how we overestimate the percentage of higher tax payers, thinking it 29 per cent when it is only eight. Oddly enough, giving rise to suspicions about our mathematical abilities, we also underestimate by half how much this group contributes (60 per cent) to the tax-take.

As Emily Gray, managing director of Ipsos MORI Scotland, points out, this has implications for public policy discussions: “The result points to a need for people to be sufficiently informed about taxation to hold government to account. Since we underestimate how much higher earners contribute to Scotland’s tax-take, we may also misjudge what difference this and any future policy changes will make.”

Sadly in one sense, but at least possibly to the benefit of public policy, Scots do have at least one specialist subject: alcohol. The Ipsos MORI Scotland study found that our estimate of how many people were teetotallers was not far out: we thought it 20 per cent when it is 16.

Even here, though, our knowledge is somewhat blurred. Previous research has revealed us to be confused about recommended alcohol limits for each gender and to report, in two out of five cases, that we’d probably be thought odd if we didn’t drink.

What does all this probing and counting and judging tell us about ourselves? Is what we see today a virtual reality and not the actualité? When it comes to weight and alcohol in particular, are we more about self-deception than perception? The last is certainly arguable.

As for our other misperceptions, it is likely the case, as Dr Gray suggests, that the sheer barrage of information, news and studies – ironically enough – leads us to overestimate some phenomena. It’s not surprising in a way. Stats can discombobulate us. As long as most people know there’s a problem, that at least is a start. However, when it comes to formulating debates that fuel public policy, it will surely be a big help to know just how much of a problem it is.